Cities flex their primary muscle


March 09, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

New Hampshire and Iowa beware. A group of American cities, possibly including Baltimore, are out to steal your presidential primary thunder.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, frustrated by the short shrift urban issues have received in recent presidential campaigns, has sanctioned a plan to move its concerns to the center of the debate.

The current calendar of presidential primaries and caucuses "effectively disenfranchises millions of urban-dwelling Americans, making their views largely irrelevant to the presidential nominating process," the mayors said in a June 1992 resolution.

The plan to rectify that imbalance envisions a presidential straw poll for major party candidates in 15 to 20 geographically and demographically diverse cities in conjunction with the November 1995 municipal elections -- more than two months before the first primaries or caucus in the 1996 presidential campaign.

In other words, if Baltimore becomes a participant in CityVote, as the project is called, residents will be able to express a preference for a presidential candidate while they are at the polls electing a mayor and council.

CityVote is being directed and promoted by Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine, Calif., and a minor Democratic presidential candidate in 1992. Mr. Agran entered that race in the hope that his candidacy would focus attention on the problems of the cities.

So far, he says, three cities have officially committed to the straw poll: Spokane, Wash., St. Paul, Minn., and Pasadena, Calif.

In addition, he is hopeful, he said, that Minneapolis, New Haven, Conn., Olympia, Wash., and Baltimore will soon enter the fold, along with several others. "The philosophy of it is that if we build it, they will come," he said, meaning candidates.

Baltimore is taking steps to participate in CityVote. In February, the City Council passed a resolution asking the General Assembly for authority to conduct the poll.

That legislation is being considered by the city delegation, which by tradition must sign off on local bills before the House of Delegates and Senate will consider them.

Baltimore Democrat Gerald J. Curran, chairman of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, held a hearing on the bill last week, but deferred action pending the deliberations of the city delegation.

Del. Salima Siler Marriott, another Baltimore Democrat, argued for approval before Mr. Curran's panel. She maintained that problems such as homelessness, drug addiction, and failing vTC schools are most acute in the cities. "Yet in 1992, as in most presidential years, the urban problems were not included in the national political debate," she said.

Afterward, Mr. Curran said that some committee members seemed concerned that adding a straw poll to the already heavy schedule of primaries might prove an inordinate burden on candidates.

"They have to campaign for the straw poll and then come back and campaign for the primary," he said. "Does that make sense?" He also noted that there was no testimony from party organizations at his committee's hearing. "We need to do some research," he said.

Henry Bogdan, the city's chief lobbyist in Annapolis, said that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke supports the concept of the CityVote straw poll. Meanwhile, Mary Pat Clarke, the council president and a major supporter of the CityVote plan, is already looking down the road and talking about Baltimore holding a presidential debate. "We want to put the cities on the political map," she said.


Maryland Democratic activist Mary Jo Neville is a very popular woman. Her suitors range from sea to shining sea, at least they did until the Los Angeles earthquake forced that city to drop out of the bidding to host the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

Ms. Neville, one of 35 members of the advisory committee that will recommend which city will get the nod -- Chicago is the front runner, with New York, San Antonio, New Orleans and Kansas City, Mo., still in the running -- is being showered with gifts and trinkets.

So far she's received socks, cereal, granola bars, golf balls and Gatorade mix. On Valentine's Day, she was treated to "sweet persuasion truffles" from Fannie May candies, based in Chicago. "This is only the beginning," she said, laughing.

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